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Wireless/Mobile Computing

Should employees be left to their own devices? That's just one of several managerial dilemmas companies face as this not-so-new technology continues to emerge.

To a large extent, wireless technology has already emerged. Trouble is, it keeps emerging. From cell phones to personal digital assistants to pocket PCs, wireless devices continue to morph and improve exponentially. As a result, the challenge is not so much to understand what they do or how they do it, but to affix price tags. Sure, workers want wireless devices, and no doubt they’ll use them. But do they really need them? And beyond the gadgets, keeping track of the advances (and controversies) in wireless infrastructure is daunting.

The $1,600 a year a company spends on, for example, the popular wireless-E-mail BlackBerry device (a figure that includes hardware, software, and back-end server connection and support) isn’t going to bust the IT budget. But multiply that by thousands and factor in rapid obsolescence, and suddenly the ability to check and send E-mail from the airport lounge starts to look less like a necessity than a nice-to-have. And funding for nice-to-haves has been mighty tight lately. Factor in uncertainty about which device might be best suited to which barely conceived corporate application, and the equation gets more difficult.

Then there’s the security risk. Every CIO has plenty of war stories about receiving frantic calls regarding laptops left in cabs or stolen from under restaurant tables. “Wireless is a double-edged sword,” acknowledges Jack Gold, vice president of mobile and pervasive computing at Meta Group, a Stamford, Connecticut-based technology-research firm. “On the one hand, they offer instant connectivity to information, and that’s a good thing for companies. On the other hand, I talked to an IT guy last year who told me one executive lost seven Palm devices in a year. What if there are corporate secrets on them?”

But cost and security concerns haven’t put much of a damper on the wireless market. While growth has slowed, the number of worldwide wireless subscribers will exceed 2 billion by 2007, according to InStat/MDR, up from 1.3 billion this year.

Why You Should Care

Because, as Gold says, “there are a lot of business needs that can be solved with wireless.”

Palm devices and cell phones shook off the “emerging” label years ago, but other forms of wireless technology are just heating up. In the next two years, the Wi-Fi “hot spots” (wireless network access points) that now dot thousands of Starbucks coffee franchises, airports, and hotels will pop up almost everywhere, from malls to office buildings to homes.

Currently operating in the same unlicensed spectrum of the airwaves as walkie-talkies, baby monitors, and garage-door openers, Wi-Fi provides high-speed connectivity to the Internet from laptops, handheld PCs, and other wireless devices.

Speed matters, because the productivity gains companies demand hinge on employees being able to access not only E-mail but also databases and software applications that would be useless via a modem connection. Wi-Fi isn’t the only high-speed game in town; cell phones have been lurching toward so-called 3G (third-generation) levels of performance, but this will take another two to three years to become broadly available. Carriers will have to replace existing cellular station equipment, and a host of issues regarding the transmission spectrum has yet to be resolved, Gold says.

What 2004 Will Bring

Continuous innovation of the products, with ever-expanding functionality. Consider the “smart phone”—a wireless phone that uses the Global Positioning System to reveal your location at all times, so your admin always knows where you are. It also lets you send and read E-mail, surf the Web, organize your calendar, and access and use corporate LAN applications. Oh, and you can make calls with it.

Smart phones are evolving to address specific user needs. Nokia’s new 6800 device, for example, which began shipping in the first quarter of 2003, is a slightly larger cell phone with a number pad that flips over the display screen and becomes a small standard QWERTY keyboard.

Users who need everything, take heart: Scott Ellison, program director of mobile communications at research firm IDC, says that “advanced devices continue to decline in price as they are surpassed by even-more-functional devices.”

But from an IT perspective, wireless “projects,” ranging from wireless E-mail access to equipping field staff with customized wireless devices that allow them to be fully functional 24/7 almost anywhere, can cost an organization $25,000 to $500,000 or even in the millions, depending on the number of employees, hardware, software development, integration, and continuing IT support.

What 2004 should bring is stronger managerial discipline. “Maximum value, cost savings, and security are best realized when an organization has a clear and comprehensive wireless strategy,” says Ellison. “Wireless is providing such value that employees are ‘self-provisioning’ themselves with the latest wireless solutions like Wi-Fi, which prove to be extraordinarily beneficial to employees but could create unnecessary support complexity, security risks, lost cost-savings opportunities, and other problems.”

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